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Hudson ready for the season

Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

Marvin Hudson, soon to begin his 11th year as a Big League umpire, lives less than three hours from Bobby Cox's farm in Bartow County. Hudson knows the Braves' manager well. He is aware, too, that Cox holds the all-time major league ejections record (159), but the veteran umpire has never given Cox the thumb.

At the Jockey Club, a popular local restaurant on the square in Washington, Hudson laughed and said, "I may be the only major league umpire who has never thrown Bobby out of a game."

Hudson grinned when someone brought up the fact that if he is to join the club of those who have tossed Cox from the playing field, he will need to get it done next season. Cox has said he will retire after 2010.

It was a "Hot Stove League" afternoon -- without the pot-bellied stove -- with baseball aficionados gathered around to talk baseball on a cold, gray day. Offseason baseball conversation is not referred to as the "Hot Stove League" all that much anymore. As we talked, however, there was a moment of reflection back to another day when that would have been the case when Ernie Harwell, the veteran Detroit Tiger announcer, grew up here. Ernie, now gravely ill with cancer, was Washington's longtime link with the major leagues. Then Marvin Hudson entered the picture and -- unlike Ernie, a modest and just man -- toils in anonymity.

That's the life of an umpire.

For baseball fans, there are certain staples of the game which are as old as the game itself. Peanuts, popcorn and Cracker Jack. Hot dogs; organ music. Hit and run. A game-winning homer, and, of course, booing the umpires. At just about any game when the men in blue come walking out, you are likely to hear a chorus of boos.

That's music to Marvin Hudson's ears. "We come to expect that," he said, "but I have learned over the years that doesn't mean they don't respect us. It is just part of the game, and it helps get us ready to do our job."

There is something about the atmosphere of a ball park. It becomes invigorating to players and fans. "Umpires, too," Marvin quickly added.

Umpires get up for the game and are exhilarated by an electrifying matchup of teams bent on winning a championship. If fans can't wait for a Fourth of July classic, neither can the umpires.

"We enjoy being part of a great game just as much as the players and fans," he said.

Experience and hard work are the main ingredients in an umpire's emergence from the minors, where they make $1,800 to $2,000 a month, to AAA ball ($3,400 a month) to the majors, where compensation ranges from $90,000 to $350,000 plus benefits and a nice pension. Even with considerable perks, like flying first class, the umpires wouldn't be out there without an abiding love of baseball.

"It has become more of a job for me now, and I admit that it is a well-paid profession if you make it to the majors," Hudson said, "but we all get into umpiring because we love the game."

They have to love it to get all bundled up in thermal underwear for a game in freezing conditions at Fenway Park in April and then endure the sweltering heat for a doubleheader in Houston in mid-July.

When Hudson was asked about other subjects, such as replay and women's umpires, he commented, "As far as replay is concerned, I like it the way it is now. I don't think we need to slow the game down anymore. All I can tell you about women umpires is that the new baseball stadiums have dressing rooms for women umpires."

A catcher at Piedmont College, Hudson noted that most umpires have played some sport, which brought to mind a conversation in a game when a big-league batter questioned the calls of an umpire who once was a minor-league pitcher. "I remember your career," the batter said. "You never could get anybody out."

With that, the umpire gave the complaining batter the thumb and responded, "I can now."